‘This is a true democracy’

VANCOUVER (CUP) — In the last week, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has become very visible as the heart of Vancouver’s dynamic and divisive housing movement. While featured in the 2010 Convergence protests that brought together a wide range of social groups, the last week has seen the housing movement take a prominent position as a social issue within the city.

Monday, a rally made up of the homeless and their supporters went from Pigeon Park to an empty lot on East Hastings. The lot was originally rented by the Vancouver Organizing Committee from Concord Pacific to use as a parking lot for some of the vehicles in its fleet. It was turned into a tent village where residents have come together to form a community.

Vancouver’s ‘Downtown Eastside House’

“I’ve been here since ’92, and I’ve been on the streets for about six years now,” said Ashley, an Aboriginal man who sat guarding the entrance to the tent city. “This is about my third tent city that I’ve been fighting for.”

According to Eric Castavet, a tent city organizer, residents hope the tent village will attract the attention of the federal government. “We camp here to show the government that before a condo, we need houses,” he said.

“Look at that condo. You can rent that for (over a thousand) bucks a month, but welfare gives us $375.”

In Vancouver, attempts have been made to increase shelter space. Seven Homeless Emergency Action Team (HEAT) shelters have been established, although federal funding for those will end in April, with future funding for the area in jeopardy.

According to Castavet, shelters are not homes, and they won’t solve the problem.

“You share a toilet with 60 to 70 people. You share the same shower. Can you imagine (being) the last one to take a shower?” he said. “We’re not looking for shelter. We’re looking for one-bedroom, two-bedroom apartments.”

Many members of the tent village point out that housing is necessary to become self-sustainable. “Three-quarters of the homeless people here, they could go for work, but they have no place to get ready for work,” said Castavet, who had hoped to find a steady job in Vancouver after leaving his home in Manitoba.

“We have (busy) traffic until 4:30 in the morning, so you have one hour of sleep. You have no clothes to change. We cannot have a shower. So how are we supposed to find a job?”

Castavet said that they have seen about an equal amount of support and criticism from passers-by regarding their tent village protest.

“Some of them . . . (honk their) horn at us: ‘Hey, good for you guys,’” he said. “Others look at us like we are cockroaches on the street. Most of them, they stop by, they walk in, they look at it, and they walk out.”

The tent village has made it possible to get their message about housing out in a positive way, according to Garvin Snyder, who moved to Vancouver from Ottawa eight years ago and now lives in single resident occupancy housing on East Hastings.

“VANOC was going to get us a protest playpen,” he said, referring to the Olympic “free speech zone” concept. “This might as well be it. We’re near so many services.”

Snyder said he was the first person to spray paint the Olympic Countdown Clock outside of the Vancouver Art Gallery, a form of protest he says is only possible in Canada. “If I was in any other country in the world, I never would have been able to tag the clock and walk free,” he said.

However, Snyder emphasized that it’s important to exercise those rights. “This is a true democracy. It costs nothing to get your message out,” he said, gesturing at his red tent — one of hundreds that were provided by Pivot Legal Society — and a larger tent set up as a private space he dubbed “Downtown Eastside House.”

Many citizens of the community feel they have been empowered by the tent city. “The people are getting nurtured, we don’t have to go to bed with an empty stomach, and they’re happy,” said Stella August, an Aboriginal resident working with Power to Women. “To me, that’s freedom for these people.”

Castavet believes the tent city has helped bring people together. “The community is so strong that nobody can go through us,” he said. “We are bricks together. Cement.”

The Tyee reported that Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang, part of the Vision Vancouver party, said last week that his party won’t support the tent city because of concerns over health and safety. However, members of the tent village have said that they have been careful not to allow drugs or alcohol. Although police have been monitoring their camp, they have not had altercations so far.

Seeing red

Outside Sochi House, known any other time of year as the Telus World of Science, a coalition of groups led by Pivot Legal Society deployed red tents at a different demonstration on Friday night. The group, who aren’t homeless but describe themselves as supporters and concerned citizens, held a sleepover in solidarity at the park there.

“I was looking for something to do during the Olympics that would be positive towards getting a national housing campaign,” said Megan McKinney, a political consultant. “This is a solidarity movement with the tent city.”

McKinney was brought into the event through friends, who were organizers. “I worked in the Downtown Eastside, and things just keep getting worse every year,” she said. “(Vancouver) is an incredibly unaffordable city, and that just gets worse and worse.”

The red tent campaign has had a few critics. Kerry Jang has suggested that some activist groups have said to him the red tent campaign is a PR stunt and that the Pivot groups are “exploiting homeless people for their own gain.”

Am Johal is the Chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition (ICC), an Olympics watchdog group and partner organization in the red tent campaign. He explained in an interview that the red tents were selected not just to provide shelter but to make homelessness more visible. Johal hopes Olympic attention will help strengthen the national housing movement.

He believes it’s important that housing reform advocates “utilize this opportunity to grow a movement that goes beyond the Games” and hopes that “we’ll engage with housing advocates across the country.”

“It’s really aimed at getting the federal government to reestablish a national housing program.”

An island of activists in a sea of tourists

On Saturday, tent city members, red tent campaign supporters and activists met in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Flanked on all sides by crowds of tourists, participants and media stood out clearly, if only for their lack of Games-related merchandise. The rally mixed politicians with the homeless, as a speakers and a few city residents stepped up to the microphone, telling their stories and singing songs.

Speakers at the event included Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project, David Dennis of the Frank Paul Society, Stella August of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center and MP Libby Davies (NDP Vancouver East) among others. They focused on the federal government’s lack of involvement in housing projects.

“You look at all the projects, the billion-dollar projects that the federal government poured into this city,” said Dennis, “and they’re the only government that is not participating or putting any money towards homelessness, and that’s a crying shame.”

“The Olympics, according to a well known real estate developer in our city, Bob Rennie, (is) a $6-billion marketing campaign for Vancouver,” said Pedersen. “We do not agree with turning Vancouver into a rich resort city. We need affordable housing, and the only way we’re going to be able to do it is to get big dollars from the federal government.”

David Cadman, a Vancouver city councillor, said, “We knew it would be an embarrassment if the world came here and saw the Downtown Eastside with so many homeless people,” he said.

He was noncommittal about whether the city might answer calls to purchase the tent city land and turn it into social housing. “We’re unlikely to be stampeded into purchasing certain pieces of property that might cause an inflation of price,” he said. “We’re very strategic — we go in quietly, usually, and acquire.”

Spare some change?

Many of the activists hope that a national housing policy is developed, following a solution proposed by Dr David Hulchanski of the University of Toronto, which calls for all levels of government to devote one per cent of their budgets to housing. Johal said that he feels public response to the housing movement and the red tent campaign has been positive due to their clear goals.

“We’re getting a lot of support,” said Johal. “I think that a lot of times with activism people lose sight of what they are supporting, and what is great about this campaign is that we’re really specific about what we’re pushing for.”

New Democratic MP Davies authored a bill for a national housing strategy (Bill C-304), which passed second reading before Parliament was prorogued. The House of Commons will decide whether or not to restore it, among other bills, when Parliament reconvenes next month.

If adopted, the bill would require that the federal government put forward an affordable housing strategy, so housing costs do not “compromise an individual’s ability to meet other basic needs, including food, clothing and access to education.”

The bill would also require financial assistance to be provided in cases where individuals are unable to afford housing and ensure that social housing provides adequate and specific facilities reflecting those in need. In addition, the bill includes a provision for shelters to be made available in the event of disasters and crises.

Meanwhile, the tent city grows, with over a hundred tents already and more added daily. VANOC’s lease on the lot expires in five weeks, at which point control of the land will revert to real estate developer Concord Pacific. Garvin is planning to stay at least those five weeks, or until he is asked to leave.

“Somebody would know,” he said. “We’d know anyways. Put your socks and underwear on, we’ve got to move,” he said.

Beatrice Star, from the Power to Women movement, echoes the organizers of the red tent campaign when she said that the movement must go on after the Games. “If we leave early and just let this go, then we didn’t accomplish anything.”

According to Castavet, it is important to stand ground. “We try to fight for our rights, and we lose all the time,” he said.

“So this is why today, we wake up, and stand up for everybody.”

—With files from Trevor Record and Michael Thibault, the Ubyssey